Matchmaking isn’t rocket science, but it can be tricky from time to time. Saturday night wasn’t one of those nights. Whatever happened, Joe Silva was going to come out a winner. Either one of the four middleweights in the top two fights was going to come out looking like a clear No. 1 contender, or the victors could be placed on a collision course.
After UFC Fight Night ended, the latter option seems the right call. Both Lyoto Machida and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza claimed victory and rightful ownership of the next UFC middleweight title shot. In truth, neither distinguished himself quite enough to outright claim it. So the two should meet in a true No. 1 contender’s match; a duel to decide it.
The idea is sound, but unfortunately, there are complicating issues in play. Namely, both guys walked (or limped) out of the Arena Jaraguá with injuries, though the severity of either is currently unknown. For Souza, it is his shoulder, a training injury that he carried into battle. For Machida, it is his left foot, a battle scar suffered around the third round, and one that caused him to leave wearing a walking boot and fearing a break.
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If those injuries require significant time to heal, the possibility of a fight between them could remain sheer fantasy. In that case, whoever is healthier may be bumped to the front of the line. That’s not ideal, but the good news is that there is some time to sort out the options. Champion Chris Weidman and challenger Vitor Belfort don’t meet up until May 24. That’s 14 weeks away. A Machida-Jacare fight can take place up to a month or two afterward and still set up the Weidman-Belfort winner for a year-end fight with the Machida-Jacare winner.
“This division has a lot of great fighters,” Machida said in the post-fight press conference. “I wouldn’t want this [Jacare] fight, but if they want it, we’ll have to fight.”
Let’s hope that “they” want it. The fact of the matter is that either Machida or Souza can be placed into a title fight with few objections, but neither truly cemented himself as the next guy.
Machida’s performance was subtly brilliant, filled with feints and movement and masterful countering, but subtlety is a tough sell in a world built on shutdown power. Never mind that he was facing Gegard Mousasi, a rare opponent that is his intellectual equal, capable of mid-round adjustments. The give and take between them was riveting as much for what they didn’t do as what they did. It was a fascinating showing, but not an awe-inspiring one, and so Machida needs to take one more big step to get where he wants to go.
Souza’s night was somewhat similar. He didn’t have quite the same trouble with Francis Carmont, but his usual action-oriented style was restrained particularly on the feet, likely because he was cautious about overextending himself and leaving himself open to being crowded, but also possibly due to his shoulder. Carmont may have first earned a reputation as a kickboxer, but he’s made his UFC living on the inside and from top position on the ground, and Souza was hellbent on staying away from both positions. When he had Carmont’s back, he hunted the finish, but wasn’t able to find it.
As a result, neither he or Machida could walk away saying they definitively deserved the right to the No. 1 contender slot.
Depressingly, if Machida and/or Souza are out for any extended period of time, the top of the division has a few issues. Remember, Anderson Silva is out for the foreseeable future and Michael Bisipng is finally coming back after a year off. Who does that leave as viable alternative options? Would Tim Kennedy be bumped to a title shot with a win over Bisipng? Could Luke Rockhold get one with a victory over Tim Boetsch? Neither of those possibilities seem particularly likely.
That means the next contender has to be either Machida or Souza. At this point, Machida is the easier sell given his past as a former light-heavyweight champion, the respect for his all-around game, and the renewed interest in him as a middleweight. But in a perfect world, this isn’t the win that gets him there. In the ideal scenario, he meets “Jacare,” and instead of the schedule dictating that the healthier of the two gets the fight, the athletes figure it out for themselves.